Home networking's broadband role grows

As fixed and wireless broadband proliferate across the globe and the hunger for web and video content escalates, home networking is becoming an increasingly vital component of the broadband saga. This is especially true as more and more consumer electronics ship IP-ready and consumers become increasingly used to accessing the web by more than just a desktop PC at home or in the office. 

For a sign of the times, one can turn to Singapore, where the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) sees home networking as the next area of development for its NBN project. At this year's CommunicAsia event, IDA senior director for next generation infrastructure Philip Heah said that the regulator has been receiving many queries from consumers asking how to network devices in their homes, and would kick off a home networking initiative to address their concerns. This month, the IDA will release a home networking guide for homeowners, which will offer a summary and comparison of common options to connect devices in different parts of the house to the NBN's fiber access termination point.

But even as home networking gains more relevance in the age of fiber access and the Internet of Things, it's also becoming more complicated. Service providers have typically shied away from becoming too involved in home networks primarily because managing devices sitting behind the home gateway (which service providers would naturally be expected to do) was a challenge. Even as industry standards groups like the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) have labored to provide protocols and standards to enable devices to connect to home network gateways more easily, a mishmash of access standards (from Ethernet, HomePlug and MoCa to Wi-Fi and WiGig) has complicated device interoperability.

Meanwhile, there's a new complication arising - the cloud. If "traditional" home networking was concerned mainly with enabling devices within a home to share resources and content within that network (such as your iTunes playlist, for example), the cloud adds a new dimension by allowing some of that content to be hosted outside the home network in a way that's still accessible by all the devices connected to that gateway.

With industry hype growing around streaming content services like Netflix, YouTube and Rhapsody, and content-hosting services like Apple's iCloud and Amazon's Cloud Player - all of which tout the ability of users to easily access content via multiple devices Ð the traditional paradigm of home networks is arguably changing, says Jim Williams, president of consultancy Media
Strategies and Solutions

"The continuing expansion of cloud-based services will definitely impact how home networking deploys and evolves," he tells Telecom Asia. "Each instance of a cloud-based service chips away at the complexity that would otherwise be required of a home network for that application.  Cloud-based services concentrate complexity in the cloud.  Home networks concentrate complexity in the home."

Integration disincentives

One of the issues presented by cloud-based content services, particularly on the mobile side, is that it potentially lowers the incentive for consumers to integrate wireless devices with their home networks. 

Kevin Burden, mobile device practice manager at ABI Research, points out that new cloud services offered by Amazon, Google and Apple allow consumers direct access to both user-generated and licensed media. 

"If they are easier and more convenient for consumers, mobile cloud services could completely bypass the need for integration with home networks or entertainment equipment," he said in a research note.

The irony is that certification programs for DLNA and Wi-Fi Direct now make it easier than ever for consumers to integrate smartphones and tablets into their home networks, adds ABI senior analyst Victoria Fodale. 

"Wi-Fi Direct enables a device to connect directly to another device without a wireless network. DLNA-certified devices discover other certified devices, eliminating the need for a consumer to configure the connection," says Fodale. "Both programs help mitigate the difficulties that consumers often face when connecting devices at home, and both bring wireless technology further into the mainstream market."

But figures from ABI indicate that while Wi-Fi Direct- and DLNA-enabled smartphones will grow strongly, at CAGRs of 63% and 23%, respectively, through 2016, home networks will grow at only 4% in that time frame Ð illustrating "a clear disconnect" between smartphone capability and home network usage, Fodale says.

"Although Wi-Fi connectivity is ubiquitous in smartphones, and the number of wireless home networks is growing steadily in developed markets, network configuration remains challenging for the average consumer," adds Fodale.

DRM issues

That's not to suggest that the home network will be an either/or proposition of home vs cloud. Williams of Media Strategies says there's already a continuum of possible solutions between the two models in play.  

"An example of a hybrid approach is a whole home PVR that serves movies and television to lightweight STBs throughout the home," he explains. "Now imagine connecting the whole home PVR over the internet to a cloud-based service like [digital rights authentication and cloud-based distribution system] Ultraviolet. Additionally, imagine that one of the devices in the home is a portable device with its own storage that could load a movie from the PVR to watch while traveling in a plane.  This architecture is an amalgam of the cloud and home network approaches where devices take on different roles at different times for different purposes."

Shawn Ambwani, VP of Intertrust, notes that the extent of a hybrid approach will depend on the network, the business models and how people consume content.

"For something like Netflix, for example, it's in the cloud, but you have to be connected to watch it, and it has to be a good connection, otherwise it's useless and has no value," he said. "If you want to watch a movie from iTunes, you have to download it first and that takes awhile - you have to wait an hour to watch it. There's all these different combinations that make it complex." 

That's becoming especially true in the case of content from multiple devices inside and outside the home network because of multiple DRM standards, Ambwani adds. 

"Service providers want to be able to offer different types of services - streaming video, downloads, or a hybrid of the two. Users want to be able to access that content on different devices, or they want to access iTunes or other services," Ambwani says. "All that content needs DRM, but if they all have a different DRM standard, it limits your ability to get content on all of your devices."

Proprietary DRM is already a problem within home networks themselves, he adds. "You can't have an Xbox, an Apple TV box and a TV set in your living room with different DRM standards."

Williams observes that the difference for cloud-based systems and home networking systems is where the rights management function is located: in the cloud or in the home.  Either way, he says, "the same essential problem must be solved.   And since the eventual systems that are successful in the marketplace will likely be an amalgam of the two approaches, both the cloud and the home networking content protection problems need to be solved."

Ambwani's company Intertrust is one of a community of developers advocating Marlin, an open-standards DRM platform that promises to not only lower costs for service providers, but also enable a practical solution for protecting content across different devices and services. To date, Marlin has been adopted in a handful of markets, including Japan (for its national IPTV standard), the UK, France and Italy. It's also supported by the Open IPTV Forum and Ultraviolet.

Beyond content sharing

However the DRM issue plays out, broadband service providers are still looking at other ways to leverage the cloud for home networking services. The Home Gateway Initiative - an industry group of broadband service providers and vendors that publishes requirements for "digital home building blocks" (hardware and software) to connect with each other - has recently begun work on protocols to help broadband players develop services that can take advantage of both cloud technologies and home network resources. 

HGI president Duncan Bees offers home energy management as an example. "We're already developing the home gateway to serve as a platform for that, but another approach is to put some of that application awareness and intelligence in the network," he says. 

From there, Bees adds, "We can build that to home automation, monitoring and security, and those types of things."

Bees says HGI is also looking at home network resources that might need to be managed from the cloud and "manage that in a more active way than the typical TR-69 management. For example: firewall management on your home gateway, statistics, user profiles, file resources, phone books Ð all kinds of things in the home you might need access to in the cloud, and how to enable communication between the home network and these cloud based services. There's all kinds of things like this once you start getting in to it."

HGI is also looking at things like media sharing (to include user-generated photos and video), although he notes that they "haven't really looked at the DRM issues for sharing content across the cloud yet, but we probably will."

Bees says that while bringing cloud-based services into the home networking mix does add new complexity, "the counterpoint is that the home gateway or the set top box is a good application platform. So a lot of these things can be done in the home or reside in the cloud and so it becomes a question of the tradeoffs."

Williams agrees, noting that while cloud-based services can shift complexity from the home to the cloud, "The trade-off is the need to have always-on, high-speed broadband and coming to grips with the associated privacy and control issues.

These issues alone will likely ensure a continuing role for home networking as the cloud-based model continues to grow."

Meanwhile, the IEEE is working on a technology standard that can help ease the complexity somewhat, at least in terms of transport. IEEE P1905 aims to enable connection of fixed-line home networking devices and mobile devices by creating an abstraction layer that provides a common interface for apps and upper layer protocols. Those apps and protocols would then be agnostic to whatever underlying home network transport technologies they come across in the home network, be it powerline (IEEE P1901 and HomePlug AV), Wi-Fi, MoCA or Ethernet.

"The aim is for consumers or operators to be able to combine these different connections to maximize a home system's overall performance and robustness," explained Rethink Research analyst Caroline Gabriel in a research note. "Packets can arrive and be transmitted over any of the network types according to quality of service (QoS) priorities. P1905 also supports common set-up procedures for adding devices, ensuring security, implementing QoS and managing the network."

What about IPv6?

With IPv6 now standard issue from the world's RIRs, the question of implementation has taken center-stage in a number of areas. Home networking is now one of them, as little work has been done in the IPv6 space in regards to home networking devices. An IPv6 implementation standard for broadband CPE was only just released by the Broadband Forum in April this year. And at the end of June members of the Internet Engineering Task Force proposed the creation of a working group specifically to address the issues of deploying IPv6 within home networks.

According to an IETF announcement proposing the working group, the increasing diversity and scale of the number of internet-ready devices sitting behind a home gateway that can connect directly to the internet, as opposed to connecting indirectly via NAT (Network Address Translation) is creating new requirements for IETF protocols for IPv6 implementation.

One issue cited by the IETF is the introduction of multiple subnets to home networks, which will become increasingly crucial not only to support private and public (guest) networks, but also to accommodate networks that use Layer 3 (i.e. Ethernet) as well as link layers designed for low-powered sensor networks (i.e. home energy management systems). That level of segmentation may also be necessary in situations where building control has to be separated from the internet access network. 

Another issue is the trade-off of home networking devices with direct internet connectivity: exposure to unwanted traffic. "Firewalls that restrict incoming connections may be used to prevent exposure, however, this reduces the efficacy of end-to-end connectivity that IPv6 has the potential to restore," the IETF proposal says.

"Home networks need to provide the tools to handle these situations in a manner accessible to all users of home networks. Manual configuration is rarely, if at all, possible, as the necessary skills and in some cases even suitable management interfaces are missing," the document says.

The Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), which oversees the IETF, had not yet approved the working group proposal as we went to press. 

- John C. Tanner

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